Monday, October 30, 2006

Mainland China: Guangzhou aka Canton

We have reached the mainland and here are some first impressions of China:

Very congested. Guangzhou is super developed with skyscrapers, factories, crisscrossing multi-layered highways and large hotels. Everything here is built for volume – restaurants can seat 1,000, packed buses clog the traffic choked highways, and grocery stores comprise multiple floors. Thus far, I have not had very pleasant experiences with the locals. It feels like someone is always trying to scam you.

Example: We sit down to dinner at a fairly modern trendy Chinese restaurant in a mall. The offer us tea, we accept without bothering to ask for the price of the tea. I figured we'd pay for the tea since it's not customarily a free part of the meal like it is in Chinese restaurants in America. Then we get the bill and the tea (which wasn't such amazing tea anyway) costs twice the amount of our most expensive entree. Twice the amount? Why would they assume we wanted their best tea? But it's just another example of the deception that goes on here. I understand that when you travel and you don't know the language you get ripped off, but it just keeps happening and it's really starting to color this experience.

The Canton Export Commodities Fair:

The Pazhou Export Fair complex is the largest fair complex in Asia and second largest in the world. The grounds of the complex spans 560,000 square meters (that's roughly 5.6 million square feet) with 177,000 companies exhibiting their wares. That's a whole lotta stuff. And that is exactly what this fair is filled with: stuff. And things. Lots of stuff and things. Everything you can think of is manufactured in China. And a lot of it is really crappy. It may be a cliche, but it's true. China is responsible for all that crap you see at dollar stores, all the trinkets, ceramic Santas, chotchkes, plastic congealed beer figurines, fake flowers, framed neon signs, crap, crap crap. Its simultaneously fascinating and depressing. Because just as many times I passed a booth filled with something useless, like say, strapless flip-flops (you foot is held on by industrial-strength adhesive), there were just as many buyers lined up to make orders for their stores. They make it because we buy it. It's a cycle of crap.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

It's Still 1984 Here

Here's the thing about the Internet in China - it's really slow. Why so slow, you may ask? Well, for one thing they are still developing their technology capabilities and high-speed Internet is not a given in many households (I am coming to you live on a dial-up. It's all very 1999.), but also there this whole "filters" thing going on whereby certain pages are off limits to the public. You'll be reading the NYTimes online and click on a business article and it gives you an error page, or you search for something harmless like designer handbags and it doesn't come up. Even my own blog is inaccessible to me here. So I hope that I am publishing these posts but I have no way of knowing if they are actually coming up on my page. Perhaps it's all ending up on the censor's floor. Who knows? Just a little piece of humble Commie pie for me, the naive Westerner.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Hong Kong: Unleash the Dragon

The first taste of China craziness came in the form of wild and lovely Hong Kong. Full of British ex-pats, Indian and Philippino laborers and bounding with ceaseless energy and pollution, Hong Kong was a roller coaster of change from conformist Japan.

If Tokyo is a city pressed for space and densely packed, Hong Kong is the sardine-can equivalent. Seven million people live on an island much smaller than New York and way more congested. While Tokyo was controlled chaos with orderly street crossings, high-level sanitation and delicate detail-oriented customs, Hong Kong is contained chaos with barriers and boundaries everywhere to control the extraordinary amount of people that inhabit the island. Whereas in Tokyo no one crossed the street on a red (even when there were no cars), here the locals are constantly walking in front of the cars, buses, and trams and never waiting for the lights. For this reason most of the sidewalks have gates surrounding them forming a sort of sidewalk cage whereby you can only get out at designated crossing areas. All this is to hold back the beast of humanity that is always surging forward.

And people are always telling you what to do here. Please don't stand there, move down, don't sit there, you can't try on the clothes (huh?, no try no buy, lady), you must order dinner if you sit in this section otherwise you must sit in that section, etc. It's all very prescripted and it stems from a need for crowd control and a distrust of people. Like, if they didn't put gates around the sidewalks, the pedestrians would harm themselves and others.

Think multi-layered lifestyle. Rooms here are tiny (like Tokyo) and all available space is made use of including rooftops, basements, and gigantic cloud-grazing apartment complexes.

Public transportation here is a magnificent force. People get around by ferry, taxi, underground metro, double-decker trolley cars, double-decker buses and mile-long escalator systems. It's a wonderful example of public transportation systems working. If you think about how many people get around and do things in a fairly efficient way without resorting to using a personal car, it's very impressive. When will Miami learn?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tokyo Day 2: The Agony of DeFeet

Here's the thing about navigating Tokyo, it's ridiculously difficult. Actually getting to and fro is easy with a fantastic metro and rail system (though there 3 underground systems and each has it's own ticket system so you're constantly switching and buying tickets), but there are no addresses. None.
Sure, there's this "coordinate system," whereby addresses will say Ginza 5-8-11 and that's supposed to help you. But what those numbers represent eludes many a Tokyoite. The city was built to confuse invaders and as we were clearly Western invaders, we bore the brunt of this puzzling policy.
But we are urban trekkers and determined to find certain places, our tired feet be damned. Even asking the locals sometimes proved fruitless as most don't know where anything is and certainly can't tell you how to get there.
Density is key in Tokyo and since there are infinite things to do and see, people just stick to what they know.
The other salient element of Tokyo is that one must remember to always look up. In most American cities, even urban jungles like New York, most of the activity (restaurants, stores, attractions) are based on the ground floors - you won't find yourself going to a bowling alley on the 14th floor of a 48-story building but in Tokyo life is layered, there is so much going on above ground and signs for businesses are all listed up and down building facades.
Quick rundown:
8:30 Metro to Meguro Dori, the up and coming yuppy neighborhood with vintage furniture stores.

9:30 Breakfast at Claska Hotel, the only boutique hotel in Tokyo boasting 9 rooms each designed by a different artist.

After drilling the concierge, we get really specific directions for all the places we needed to see. Of course, we ended up asking about a thousand people how to get there on the way.
Walk to Naka Meguro, lining the Segawa river, the most charming neighborhood in Tokyo.
Finally make it to Cow Books, a compact design bookstore with many out of print books.
1:30 Lunch at a charming Hawaiian restaurant overlooking the river on Naka Meguro. We were sold on the all you can drink wine and coffee, though drinking a lot of both combined with jet lag left us pretty much the same hazy state, but it was such a nice place for a lazy Sunday lunch - a quiet and peaceful pocket of bustling Tokyo.

The walk from Meguro to Shibuya reveals a super-swank neighborhood with – gasp!- single-family residences in space-squeezed Tokyo. Some very lovely minimalist architecture as well.
3:00 Check out Tolyu Hands department store – 6 floors of wacky imaginative stuff. Purchases include a letter-shaped paper puncher, cloth tissue box cozy and a razor caddy. Happy fun cute time always!
6:30 Metro to Ginza to explore stationary stores

Detour at the Chanel building's penthouse restaurant “Beige.” We have no reservations for the Alain Ducasse-helmed establishment and we look homeless compared to the posh clientele settling in for their 17,000 yen ($170) dinners but the hostess graciously shows us the all-beige restaurant and even takes us up to the roof garden for pictures.

7:15 Peruse Ito-Ya, an eight-floor stationary store. Way too manychoices for paper and its accessroies. Proves that Tokyo is a great place for people with hobbies.

7:55 Make it to Mitsokoshi department store before closing and attempt to buy some delicious offerings from their extensive food floor – everything is discounted but there are so many options and only 4 minutes to choose! Veggie tempura it is.

8:10-8:50 Search for Fukumistuya, a sake specialty store in the back alleys of Ginza. Almost give up 4 times but deliriously tired we plunder until we find the shrine to rice wine. By now I hate my shoes, my feet, and the hard, hard concrete.

9:30 Take some pictures of the store, sample some sake, call it a day. A very long day. Arigato, Tokyo.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Tokyo Dreams

General Impressions of Tokyo. VERY CLEAN. Let's just say I wanted to take my contacts out, rub them on the sidewalk and put them back in my eyes, that's how clean the streets are. And so futuristic. LOTS of shopping everywhere. A Louis Vuitton on every corner, Chanel rules and everyone is so fashionable, there's no such thing as casual. And the gals are really into the knee-socks look. Is that still trendy? The toilets have menus here, one option includes "the sound of toilet flushing" in case you're pee shy, I guess.
Tokyo is also really safe. Friends had said that, but it's so obvious when you're there that no one would mug you, or steal or scam you. You could pass out on the sidewalk with your wallet next to you and no one would take it. Samurai code of honor, it seems.
There is a lot of English on the signs, in restaurants, so it's not difficult to communicate, though Japanese are really self-concious about speaking English but they are exceedingly polite and will help you find something and even get off the train to make sure you find your destination.
Our 2 days there involved lots of raw fish, crashing a party with drag queens, and scoping out interior design stores.
Here's a quick rundown.
6:30 am Tsukiji Fish Market - if it lives in the sea it's on sale. From gigantic tunas to tiny little crawfish. Should have worn rubber boots for the excursion. lots of fish juice everywhere

7:30 Sushi breakfast at Daiwa Sushi, a tiny 12-seat restaurant. The freshest sushi in the world since it's right in the market. After a 25 minute wait, we eat toro (fatty tuna belly, the most expensive sushi you can get) for 800 yen a piece ($8) it's a splurge, but it was probably swimming in the sea that morning.

9:00 Walk to Ginza neighborhood (the 5th Ave. of Tokyo) all the stores not yet open. Onward!
Walk to the Imperial Palace. Can't see much except garden and guards. Lots of giggling Asian tourists.
Visit Hotel Okura a mid-century modern design gem. I feel like Greg Brady hanging in the lobby.

Walk to Roppongi Hills - a tower that's a city within a city.
1:30 Lunch at Le Atleier de Joel Rubuchon. We opted for the take out cafe ( only $4 a croissant!) and it was the lightest croissant imaginable. Good job, Joel.

See the Bill Viola Show (even though already saw last year at the Whitney in New York) at the Mori Art Museum on the top floor (52nd) of Roppongi Tower.
Visit "Complex" a building of emerging art galleries in Roppongi.
5:00 Walking from Roppongi to Shibuya we stop at Superdeluxe, a lounge and media space. There's a private party going on for Hoya Crystal.

There is free food and drink, we stay. There are drag queens and uncomfortable Japanese business men, we park ourselves there. After some Awamari cocktails we decide we might pass out if we drink more due to jet lag so we set out again.

7:00 Shibuya Crossing - the most orderly diagonal crossing in the world. It's like Times Square but with a lot more people, and they're all really stylish.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Asian No-No's

Off to Asia for a few weeks. First stop is Tokyo, then Hong Kong. Check back here for (hopefully) regular updates on the adventures. Unless I get traded for silk and spices, then you'll have to read elsewhere. Before I go, I leave you with a lesson in Asian customs.

Japan: no tattoos in capsule hotels or mineral baths (in Japan only Mafia and gang member's have tattoos and are therefore not welcome at most places).

Never stand chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl, this is a big insult anywhere in Asia

Never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another – funeral ritual

When taking food turn chopsticks upside down and use the sides that have not touched your mouth to serve food

China: never ever give a gift that comprises 4 of something – the word for 4 is the same as funeral

Consequently all phone numbers (purchased as SIM cards) in china that start with 4 are undesirable and therefore cheaper to buy.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Key to the Cure @ Saks

The "Key to the Cure" shopping event at Saks Fifth Ave last Thursday night was filled with oodles of ladies who love to shop (and some charitable gentlemen who love women who love to shop), lots of tasty tastings from upscale restaurants, a drag queen, women who very easily pass for drag queens, bars serving Grey Goose martinis and of course, Nicky Hilton. All in all, it was a night to guiltlessly purchase anything and everything since a portion of proceeds benefited breast cancer research. Local celeb Elaine Lancaster herself (above) kept the ladies dancing a jig as they tried on their Jimmy Choos by spinning to a tipsy, credit-card-wielding crowd. In between bites of butternut-squash ice cream, sips of a watermelon pink martini, and juggling a plethora of perfume samples, I managed to snap a few pics for your enjoyment.

Lots of high-end restaurants came out to dish delicate portions of very lovely food. Acqualina's display (above) garnered some wistful sighs from the coiffed females briskly making their way through the second floor, though the caramel dessert was to sweet for its own good.

Generous sponsors of the event included Mercedes, Ocean Drive, Norma Quintero and the always gracious Romero Britto who designed signature scarves exclusively for the event. He patiently signed each one (above) and even bought some designer duds to benfit the cause.

Nicky Hilton did a well-staged and relentlessly papparazzi'ed walk through the entire store and even chatted with local plebes (above) and she waited for her handlers to whisk her to a special station where she bought something, while the cameras flashed away. Apologies for the blurry pic but it was a challenge catching Nicky in action while balancing a glass of white wine and a plate of tuna and watermelon ceviche courtesy of Social Miami at the Sagamore. Speaking of tuna, there was a whole lot of it to be consumed walking the aisles of Saks. I guess it was an easy dish to serve since it didn't require heating and could basically be cut and served to order, but seriously people, how many ways can you sear that tuna? Whether topped with jicama slaw from Nikki Beach, or candied yams from Azul, raw fish was in abundance.

And what would a party be without duck pancetta? Everyone's favorite overpriced Overtown eatery Karu and Y made sure to represent with their signature geometric skewers of dehydrated delectables and some very delicious watermelon gazpacho. Looks like they're doing something right over there in gentrification-ville.

October 21: Moving Image @ Alonso Art

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Jewish Cooking from the Orient

The Sephardic cooking lovefest continues at the NYTimes. This time it's the cooking of Syrian, Egyptian and Lebanese Jews. Always delicious, always labor intensive. From the article:
Ms. Hasson is famous in the community for her typically Lebanese fruit preserves, like tiny apples cooked in sugar syrup, jellied quince paste and finely shredded and candied spaghetti squash, all traditional sweets for the first month of the Jewish year, which began at sundown on Sept. 22. “In Beirut, we all lived together, and the women cooked together all day long,” she said. “Everyone would sit down and help with the stuffing and the folding, someone would make a bowl of tabbouleh, and that way no one was alone doing all the work.”
The tradition of women sitting together in a kitchen cooking and gossiping may dissipate with modernity, but it's still kept up in these pockets of isolated ethnic communities. I always think what a shame it is when all that detail-oriented food is gobbled up in less time than it took to make. But the joy of making that food resides in the process, not necesarily the consuming of it. And these Brooklyn women have no problem toiling away in kitchens with $11 million pricetags.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Tonight: Heatherette @ Fashion Week Miami Beach

Annual Jewish Book Festival Picks

Bookstores and books are about as common in Miami as snowshoes, but for a few short weeks in November Miami will become book country with a bevy of author and book-related events. Overlapping a a few days with the Miami Book Fair, the Annual Jewish Book Festival takes place October 24-November 14 and has some pretty good events on the docket. Beyond the usual Holocaust-related stuff that bogs down Jewish festivals of every type (I'm looking at you, Jewish Film Festivals), this one features a nice showing of young Jewish writers including the snarky duo behind Jewtopia and the talented Dara Horn.
Some picks:
Sunday, October 29
Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson
7:30pm Alper JCC
General Admission $10
Monday, October 30
Jennifer Gilmore • Golden Country
Dara Horn • The World to Come
7:30pm Congregation Bet Breira
9400 SW 87 Ave
General Admission $7
Thursday, November 2
Daniel Libeskind
Breaking Ground
7:30pm University of Miami
The Miller Center on the UM Campus
5202 University Drive, 105 Merrick Building
General Admission $7
Sunday, November 5
Comedian Harry Shearer
Not Enough Indians
7pm Alper JCC
General Admission $10

Monday, November 13
Ruth Ellenson
The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt
7:30pm Temple Beth Or
11715 SW 87 Ave
General Admission $7

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sukkahs in the 'hood

At about 2:30pm last Friday we rolled up to Home Depot and asked an employee in the garden center if they had any bamboo rolls. "You know," he said shaking his head, "You're like the fifth person to ask me that today. We're all sold out." Of course they were. It was a few hours before the holiday of Sukkot was to begin and we, like other procrastinating Jews in Miami, were scrambling to put up our festive little huts before sundown, and there was no bamboo or canvas left anywhere. So we opted for shower curtains.
The result is actually ethereal and bright. Plus, our sukkah is mildew-resistant, how many people can say that? And at night, with the Polynesian torches going, it's even romantic.

Sukkot, a harvest holiday, is a great custom. It's a time to enjoy nature, to observe the changing seasons, and do a wacky thing - eating in a hut for 7 days is about as rugged as Judaism gets. Some hard-core Jews even sleep in their sukkah, a difficult feat when you consider that the climate up north is already inching towards the "freezing tushi" mark on the Jew-thermometer. The stores must have thought there was a tiki-hut building contest going on, which in a way, there was, as a quick survey of some sukkahs in our hood shows.

This is a classic bamboo-roll model. Simple design, easy to assemble. Adequate shade and sufficient tiki-hut ambience.

The view right through this sukkah to a yacht parked on the canal is quite striking. I am envious of this sukkah's roof frondage - they had some serious shade going on. The bug-screen frame limits privacy, but it's a good use of material.

Here's another classic style - the two-tone canvas nailed to a wooden frame. The combo of American/Israeli flags lends a political overtone to an otherwise pastoral ritual.

The gazebo-like style of this sukkah is charming. It's great how they were able to build it right by the water, making good use of water frontage.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Full Moon Fever

The stretch of beach along Collins and 85th was transformed last night into a thumping burning-man-esque moon fest. There were drum circles, firepits, little kids with beach balls and balloons, people on blankets, people making out in the moonlight and teenagers with lots of booze. There were also some talented rave kids with the glowstick dancing that always captures your attention, no matter how repetitive it is. We happened upon this contemporary pagan scene around midnight and snapped these photos. I kept thinking, "this must be what it's like in Goa, India, every night of the week."

Most impressive is that fact that Miami Beach Police allowed the event to take place and it seemed there was little police presence monitoring this debauchery. This either shows enormous trust in moon lovers or maybe the entire Dade police force was too busy making sure Carnival Center patrons weren't getting mugged. Either way, I kept thinking how wonderful something like this is for kids (the average age seemed to be 17) and also how stuff like this probably goes on in California and other beach towns all the time. And then I realized you know you're getting old when you're more worried about what you might be stepping on (was that wet sand piss or beer?) than how a full moon looks awesome.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Miami Book Fair 2006

The "Congress of Authors" is going to be a literary bonanza. See a list of confirmed authors here.
Included are a bunch of New Yorker writers:
Jeffrey Goldberg, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, Knopf
Adam Gopnik
, Children's Gate: A Home in New York , Knopf
Philip Gourevitch
, The Paris Review Interviews I , Picador
Others to check out:
Orly Castel-Bloom, Human Parts , David R. Godine
Mary Gordon, The Stories of Mary Gordon , Pantheon Books
Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Knopf
and a personal favorite,
Daniel Handler, Adverbs: A Novel , Ecco

The City Guide is the New Upsell

In preparation for an upcoming trip to Asia I've encountered travel guides from some surprising sources. It seems like every magazine has their own "city" guide. I can understand a magazine like Time Out churning out guides of their ever expanding global brand. Their guides are basically mini-versions of the magazine with a focus on nightlife and shopping, something that traditional guides like Lonely Planet and Fodor's don't necessarily cover with the same detail. But now Wallpaper has come out with some handsome and very petite guides that I happen to get a hold of from a connection in the magazine industry. And researching hotels last night I happened upon the Economist's city guides. The Economist? What kind of travel aesthetic are they espousing?
"The best places to be serious"
"Top hotels in which to ponder the effects of globalization"
"Restaurants that offer dense, drawn-out, and ultimately depressing explorations of food"
Really, though. I kid. Economist, I love you and your relentlessly staid articles on politics and the world. In fact, in college I went through an afflictive phase where I'd force myself to read all the issues of the Economist in the study of this Park Avenue family where I'd babysit every week. But they should leave the fun travel tips to the magazines that espouse the things we look for when traveling: interesting design, culture, and sites.
And how many guidebooks can one carry around these days? The Wallpaper guides are stylish, but there's no glossary for how to say "No thank you, I don't eat cuttlefish." For that, I'm sticking with Lonely Planet.